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Not yet 18, Samuel Morin is 6 foot 7 and listed at 210 pounds (“actually, I was at 211 this morning,” he says proudly), the kind of physical dimensions that cause pro scouts to take notice. (Francis Vachon/The Canadian Press Images)
Not yet 18, Samuel Morin is 6 foot 7 and listed at 210 pounds (“actually, I was at 211 this morning,” he says proudly), the kind of physical dimensions that cause pro scouts to take notice. (Francis Vachon/The Canadian Press Images)


Quebec’s change in hockey philosophy beginning to bear fruit Add to ...

When you’re huge trending toward gigantic, shovelling in the fuel becomes a preoccupation.

In the course of a couple of hours, Rimouski Océanic defenceman Samuel Morin will rattle around the pantry, ingest several pieces of fruit, a couple of granola bars, vast quantities of cheese and a protein shake.

“This one likes to eat,” sighs his father, Pascal, who fortunately runs a large catering operation on the outskirts of Quebec City.

Not yet 18, Morin is 6 foot 7 and is listed at 210 pounds (“actually, I was at 211 this morning,” he says proudly), the kind of physical dimensions that cause pro scouts to take notice.

Add in a healthy mean streak and you have a prospect who almost certainly won’t be available when his childhood faves, the Montreal Canadiens, make the 25th pick in Sunday’s NHL draft.

“I’ve always been a Habs fan,” said Morin, who used to have a Canadiens-themed bedroom lamp and slippers, “but I won’t mind if I have to change.”

There’s a good chance he will. Morin is one of a dozen or so prospects from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League who could hear their names called in the first two rounds.

It’s too soon to say definitively whether they constitute a cyclical boomlet or the fruits of an ongoing sea change at the minor and junior levels in Quebec. Either way, the province’s hockey establishment will accept it with an approving smile.

“I would say, humbly, that we’re very pleased with this year’s crop,” Sylvain Lalonde, executive director of Hockey Quebec, the province’s minor hockey body, said. “Let’s put it this way, the timing is excellent.”

While much attention has justly been lavished on the QMJHL’s marquee players – the Halifax Mooseheads’ Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin – the 2013 class might be the deepest and most talented to emerge from the league since 2006, headlined by Claude Giroux.

In addition to the best two forward prospects in the draft, the Q also boasts the top-ranked goaltender (the Mooseheads’ Zachary Fucale of Rosemère, Que.), and a raft of homegrown players like Morin, his Rimouski teammate Frédéric Gauthier, who could sneak into the top 10, Val-d’Or Foreurs winger Anthony Mantha, and Cape Breton Screaming Eagles forward William Carrier.

All could be picked in the first round (as could Laurent Dauphin of the Chicoutimi Saguenéens, who played with Morin and Gauthier on Canada’s gold medal-winning, world under-18 entry). Some scouts reckon as many as 14 or 15 Quebec-reared players could be chosen in the top 60.

It would be a titanic improvement from the low-water mark in 2008 (zero first-round choices from the QMJHL, the first Quebec-born player drafted in the third round). Since then, just 18 players chosen in the first two rounds have hailed from Quebec.

Morin, it can be argued, is on the leading edge of a structural change. He and the other draft-eligible players from Quebec are products of a four-year strategy launched in 2009 to focus on the development of one-on-one skills, fundamentals, physical fitness and sports psychology.

“Samuel is part of that cohort, so are players like Frédéric Gauthier,” Lalonde said. “We would, again humbly, like to think they have benefited from some of the measures we instituted.”

It’s an ongoing process. In 2011, the state of the game in Quebec was worrying enough to stage a provincial hockey summit. As a result, the various authorities are working to shift the focus to individually tailored training; there are now programs for each position.

“It’s changed,” Marcel Patenaude, the QMJHL’s executive vice-president, said. “Every team in the QMJHL has player development people now, we’re also doing things like developing coaching standards for goaltender coaches, which we didn’t in the past.” He added the league has also been favoured by shifting NHL sands and new blood from Europe and the Maritimes.

With enrolment holding steady (“hockey is not in decline in Quebec, anything but,” Lalonde said), Hockey Quebec has also done things like set up an under-13 provincial program, and wants to increase representation at the various national-team levels and in international competitions (Quebec finished fourth at the most recent world under-17 tournament).

Morin was part of Hockey Quebec’s under-16 team in 2011. The lineup included Gauthier, Drouin, and two other players who should be drafted this year – goalie Philippe Desrosiers and winger Anthony Duclair.

Like his peers in Hockey Quebec’s elite program, Morin was well tutored – his coach in midget was a former NHL draft pick, his provincial team coach was former Hab Donald Audette – and had a chance to hone his game against the best.

“I was always a guy who started as a fifth or sixth defenceman, but I would get better from there,” Morin said.

Like a lot of children, Morin decided early that what he really wanted was to play in the NHL – he advised his dad of this at 12 while driving home from a practice – but unlike most others, he had physical gifts and the opportunity to develop them. His parents invested in hockey schools and tolerated Samuel wrecking their basement practising his slapper.

And now, having played in the Top Prospects game and shown his wares at the NHL scouting combine, he awaits his moment in the draft spotlight.

“I wasn’t ranked that high for the QMJHL draft, but I had a good feeling,” said Morin, who was picked seventh overall by Rimouski general manager Philippe Boucher, a former NHL rearguard. “I have a good feeling this time, too.”

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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